Of Unborn Ghosts and Ancestral Murder; Or, Celebrating the Chaos That Led to Us

On June 15, 1905, Clara Magdalen Jansen killed all four of her children, Mary Claire, Frederick, John, and Theodore, in a little farmhouse in Jamestown, Wisconsin. She cleaned their bodies up, tucked them into bed, then took her own life. Her husband, Paul, came home from work to find his entire family under the covers of their little beds, dead, in what must have been one of the most horrific and traumatic experiences a human being can suffer.

There is a concept in philosophy known as amor fati, or love of one’s fate. We must accept that our lives are the culmination of everything that came before us. You may not know the names of all eight of your great-grandparents off the top of your head, but when you look in the mirror, you are looking at generational composites of their eyes, their noses, their lips, an altered but recognizable etching from a forgotten past.

When we meet someone new, we can be certain of one fact: none of their direct ancestors died before having children. It’s a cliché, but true, to say that you wouldn’t exist if your parents had not met in just the same, exact way. Even if the timing had been slightly different, a different person would have been born.

We are the surviving barbs of a chain-link past, and if that past had been even marginally different, we would not be here.

But that’s also true for your grandparents, and your great-grandparents, and your great-great-grandparents, stretching back millennia. Your life depends on the courting of countless people in the Middle Ages, the survival of your distant Ice Age ancestors against the stalking whims of a saber-toothed tiger, and, if you go back even further, the mating preferences of chimpanzees more than 6 million years ago.

Trace the human lineage back hundreds of millions of years and all our fates hinge on a single wormlike creature that, thankfully for us, avoided being squished. If those precise chains of creatures and couples hadn’t survived, lived, and loved just the way that they did, other people might exist, but you wouldn’t. We are the surviving barbs of a chain-link past, and if that past had been even marginally different, we would not be here.

The Paul who came home to that little farmhouse in Wisconsin was my great-grandfather, Paul F. Klaas. My middle name is Paul, a family name enshrined by him. I’m not related to his first wife, Clara, because she tragically severed her branch of the family tree just over a century ago. Paul got remarried, to my great-grandmother.

When I was twenty years old, my dad sat me down, showed me a 1905 newspaper clipping with the headline “Terrible Act of Insane Woman,” and revealed the most disturbing chapter in our family’s modern history. He showed me a photo of that Klaas family gravestone in Wisconsin, all the little kids on one side, Clara on the other, their deaths listed on the same date. It shocked me. But what shocked me even more was the realization that if Clara hadn’t killed herself and murdered her children, I wouldn’t exist. My life was only made possible by a gruesome mass murder. Those four innocent children died, and now I am alive, and you are reading my thoughts.

Amor fati means accepting that truth, even embracing it, recognizing that we are the offshoots of a sometimes wonderful, sometimes deeply flawed past, and that the triumphs and the tragedies of the lives that came before us are the reason we’re here. We owe our existences to kindness and cruelty, good and evil, love and hate. It can’t be otherwise because, if it were, we would not be us.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” Richard Dawkins once observed. “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.” These are the limitless possible futures, full of possible people, that Dawkins called “unborn ghosts.”

Their ranks are infinite; we are finite. With the tiniest adjustments, different people would be born, leading different lives, in a different world. Our existence is bewilderingly fragile, built upon the shakiest of foundations.

Why do we pretend otherwise? These basic truths about the fragility of our existence defy our most deeply held intuitions about how the world works. We instinctively believe that big events have big, straightforward causes, not small, accidental ones. As a social scientist, that’s what I was taught to search for: the X that causes Y.

Our existence is bewilderingly fragile, built upon the shakiest of foundations.

I am a (disillusioned) social scientist. Disillusioned because I’ve long had a nagging feeling that the world doesn’t work the way that we pretend it does. The more I grappled with the complexity of reality, the more I suspected that we have all been living a comforting lie, from the stories we tell about ourselves to the myths we use to explain history and social change. I began to wonder whether the history of humanity is just an endless, but futile, struggle to impose order, certainty, and rationality onto a world defined by disorder, chance, and chaos.

But I also began to flirt with an alluring thought: that we could find new meaning in that chaos, learning to celebrate a messy, uncertain reality, by accepting that we, and everything around us, are all just flukes, spit out by a universe that can’t be tamed.

Such intellectual heresy ran against everything I had been taught, from Sunday school to grad school. Everything happens for a reason; you just need to find out what it is. If you want to understand social change, just read more history books and social science papers. To learn the story of our species and how we came to be us, dive into some biology and familiarize yourself with Darwin. To grapple with the unknowable mysteries of life, spend time with the titans of philosophy, or if you’re a believer, turn to religion. And if you want to understand the intricate mechanisms of the universe, learn physics.

But what if such enduring human mysteries are all part of the same big question?

Specifically, it’s the biggest puzzle humanity must grapple with: Why do things happen? The more I read, year after year, the more I realized that there are no ready-made solutions to that enormous puzzle just waiting to be plucked from political science theories, philosophy tomes, economic equations, evolutionary biology studies, geology research, anthropology articles, physics proofs, psychology experiments, or neuroscience lectures.

Instead, I began to recognize that each of these disparate realms of human knowledge offers a piece that, when combined, can help us get closer to solving this bewildering puzzle. The challenge of my new book, Fluke, is to try to join many of those pieces together, to yield a new, coherent picture that reframes our sense of who we are and how our world works.

When enough puzzle pieces snap together, a fresh image emerges. As we see it come into focus, there’s hope that we can replace the comforting lies we tell ourselves with something that approaches a more accurate truth, even if it means that we must flip our entire, deeply ingrained worldview on its head.

A fair warning: some of you may find that flip disorienting. But we already live in disorienting times—of conspiratorial politics and pandemics, economic shocks, climate change, and fresh society-bending magic, produced by the wizardry of artificial intelligence. In a world of rapid change, many of us feel lost in a sea of uncertainty. But when lost at sea, clinging to comforting lies will only help us sink. The best life raft may just be the truth.

We live in a more interesting and complex world than we are led to believe. If we gaze a little closer, then the storybook reality of neat, tidy connections might just give way to a reality defined much more by chance and chaos, an arbitrarily intertwined world in which every moment, no matter how small, can count.



Adapted from Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters by Brian Klaas. Copyright © 2024. Available from Simon & Schuster.

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